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Feature


Prospera (Helen Mirren), the duchess of Milan, is usurped by her brother Antonio (Chris Cooper), and is cast off on a raft to die with her four-year-old daughter Miranda (portrayed in adulthood by Felicity Jones). They survive the experience, and find themselves stranded on a tropical island with the sole ‘human’ inhabitant, a deformed beast named Caliban (Djimon Hounsou). After initially befriending him, Prospera enslaves Caliban, then rescues and enslaves a powerful spirit named Ariel (Ben Whishaw), and claims the island as her own. 12 years later, Alonso (David Strathairn), the king of Naples, sails back to his kingdom from the marriage of his daughter to the prince of Tunisia, accompanied by his son Ferdinand (Reeve Carney), his brother Sebastian (Alan Cumming), his trusted counselor Gonzalo (Tom Conti) and Antonio. Prospera discovers their approach, and bids Ariel to create a violent tempest, wrecking the ship and stranding those aboard on her island.

Tempest, The
The thing I like about Julie Taymor’s films, especially her Shakespeare adaptations, is that they aren’t afraid to be silly, or at least they can be read as purposefully silly. I suppose it’s entirely possible that Taymor means every single over-the-top moment, and intends us to feel the melodrama, but this doesn’t really matter to me since I can enjoy her wacky excesses. Shakespeare’s writing, as I understand it, lends itself well to re-writing and re-contextualizing, and Titus, though flawed in its excess, was a fun mixed media, anachronistic approach to the material. It isn’t as good as Kenneth Branagh’s similarly embellished, and time adjusted (to something more consistent) Hamlet, but I find myself coming back to Titus more often than most Shakespearian motion pictures.

Taymor’s second shot at Shakespeare, Tempest transcends period as Titus did, but not in such a blatant sense. No one plays videogames, rides motorcycles, or makes speeches on the steps of the Palazzo della Civiltà, but costumes and sets play with anachronistic elements. This makes for a less bold statement, but gives nice contrast and character to Taymor’s strong sense of cinematic style. Her use of special effects is certainly faulty, though, and likely the most arrant weakness of the entire film. In this respect the cheese often gets the best of her, and she draws unfortunate comparisons to not very good music videos. The effects sequences based around Ariel the wind spirit, especially those that see him superimposed upon the frame, or awkwardly ‘blended’ into backgrounds, are kind of grotesque (even the ones that were apparently shot in camera). Scenes that are more heavily anchored in physical reality are much more successful, thanks in no small part to the eclectic and overwhelming organic beauty of Lanai, Hawaii. Taymor’s films have always utilized natural, and man-made settings to marvelous effect, and in this film (along with Titus) she juxtaposes the normally stagy qualities of the original text with the majesty of authentic locations (Tarsem Singh did something similar with The Fall). When Taymor allows herself to delve to heavily into post-production heavy surrealism she doesn’t only play havoc with the tone set by these more interesting, natural visuals, she also seems to be at war with her own goals for the film. She’s like a special effects addict trying to create images that are in keeping with her style in only practical means, and like any addict she falls off the wagon a few times.

Tempest, The
I assume that if I had a better understanding of, or at least a better knowledge base of Shakespeare I would have more critical things to say about this adaptation, but as someone entirely unfamiliar with this particular play (my grandfather was an English professor, and my ignorance concerning Shakespeare was a point of childhood protest for several years) I mostly enjoyed the manner in which this story is rolled out. It is explained in the extra features that the play can run upwards of four hours, and I appreciate the more condensed narrative, even though there’s plenty of evidence of missing sequences. Even when condensed and somewhat rearranged Tempest has the strange rhythm of a stage play, which is a little off-putting, but unique, and usually interesting. I have a feeling the somewhat dull thud of the climax is inherit in the original work as well. The acting is quite well rounded, including a movie stealing turn from Djimon Hounsou as Caliban the deformed, plotting slave. Hounsou, who apparently has never worked with Shakespeare, revels in the physicality and language of the role. Helen Mirren, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, David Strathairn and Chris Cooper don’t overtly impress, but only because we’ve come to expect the best from all of them, and they aren’t given anything as singular to work with. Ben Whishaw, Felicity Jones and Reeve Carney do quite well with relatively empty, cutesy, twee characters. Comedian Russell Brand is definitely out of place, but had he not been set against Hounsou and the always impeccable Alfred Molina I assume he’d look bad even if he’d been told to reign it in a bit.

Tempest, The

Video


So Disney isn’t giving Tempest the biggest roll out, but they also aren’t scrimping on this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer. Taymor’s intricately decorated vision lends itself well to the formats highly detailed capabilities, and sharp details are the transfer’s greatest asset. There are a few minor edge haloes throughout, and some of the busiest wide shots occasionally feature a white blow-out or two, but on the whole the complex compositions are quite majestic. The use of natural lighting also leads to some inconsistencies in grain, and generally dark compositions. In close-up one can get lost in the incredible texture of the costumes (along with Djimon Hounsou’s meticulous make-up), and in wide shot you can practically touch the moss covered rocks. The colour palette isn’t excessive, but when colour is utilized it is rich and vibrant. Colour looks most impressive when Taymor utilizes natural environments. The mix of lush greens, cool blues, and eclectic earth hues are as lovely as any BBC nature documentary in your collection. The costumes, in turn, utilize a lot of blacks and reds, and are sharply separated from their natural surroundings with fine subtlety for the most part, though occasional elements, like Russell Brand’s bright red scarf and sickly green suits, pop out more vigorously.

Tempest, The

Audio


This disc’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 meets basic expectations, and is generally pretty modest. Taymor’s favourite composer Elliot Goldenthal (who blew it right out of the park with Titus) once again embraces the delicious cheese factor of classic style heavy metal guitars and drums, and mixes them quite effectively with operatic strings and choruses. On other occasions he gets the job done with jazz and pop licks too. This score acts as a more constant representation of the film’s aural dramas than sound effects, which are downplayed and mostly centered in favour of the Bard’s dialogue. The aggressive drum tracks produce a nice, wide spread of LFE pumping fury. Ariel’s antics, especially storms, create an occasional rush of surround and directionally enhanced effects, but for the most part the dialogue and music have precedent over very basic environmental ambience. Occasionally the dialogue falters a bit in volume or clarity due to capturing performances in the windy elements, but usually ADR matches rather effectively.

Extras


Going into Julie Taymor’s solo director’s commentary I feared that I would be wrapped up in her sometimes flowery, overly analytical language (I’ve watched most of the extras on her other releases, and listened to the Titus commentary), but was pleasantly greeted with a relatively down to business, easy to relate to track. Sure, Taymor can overwhelm with some of her theoretical and spiritual rhetoric, but for the most part this is an educational track, which explains the process behind filming such an ambitious movie on a modest budget, and gives those of us with less proclivity in reading Shakespeare a better understanding of the text. I also quite enjoyed her descriptive differenced between her version of the stage play, and this film adaptation. There’s also a ‘Shakespeare Experts’ commentary track, which features ‘renowned Shakespeare experts’ Virginia Vaughn and Jonathan Bate. This track has definite educational value, but is so dry that listening to it is akin to sitting through a forced lecture. I fear that the people that will get the most joy from it, Shakespeare enthusiasts, will already know everything presented.

Tempest, The
‘Raising the Tempest’ (66:10, HD) is a rather exhaustive look behind the making of the film, including interviews with writer/director Julie Taymor, producers Lynne Hendee, Jason K. Lau, Ron Bozman, production designer Mark Friedberg, assistant director Sean Guest, composer Elliot Goldenthal, costume designer Sandy Powell, make-up artist Richard Redlefsen, about a million other unnamed crew members, and actors Felicity Jones, Alfred Molina, Alan Cumming, Helen Mirren, David Strathairn, Tom Conti, and Russell Brand. The tone of this doc is pretty even tempered, but the interviews verge on brutally pretentious (the crew, not so much the cast). Every single freaking thing that went into this production was absolutely the most important, meaningful thing you could possibly imagine. I understand that everyone is trying to sell a hard sale, but I found myself positively exhausted any time I was presented with a talking head against a black background. Footage of people working is quite entertaining, though. Subject matter, which is not necessarily broken into sections, includes Taymore’s stage play (including 1986 footage), the difficulties and advantages of shooting in the elements on Lanai, special effects, casting, rehearsals, changing the sex of the lead character, costume design, make-up design, music, and production design.

The disc also includes ‘Russell Brand’s Rehearsal Riff’ (4:30, HD), a bit of rehearsal footage with the comedian, ‘Julie & Cast: Inside the LA Rehearsals’ (13:30, HD), more rehearsal footage with Brand, Molina and Hounsou, a ‘Mistress Mine’ music video, and trailers for other Disney releases.

Tempest, The

Overall


Julie Taymor’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a mixed bag of beautiful Hawaiian locations, strong performances, and unattractive, gaudy special effects. It’s not the eclectic shot at the Bard’s work Titus was, but it also avoids the heavy-handed visual metaphors of Across the Universe (a film I wanted to like, but kind of hated). This Blu-ray release (there’s no official word on a DVD release yet) features an occasionally stunning transfer, a decent DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and a large collection of educational and entertaining extras, including a director’s commentary, a Shakespeare experts commentary, and a hour-plus long behind the scenes documentary.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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